Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Show 30 - Prison Blues

Show 30 - Prison Blues

After taking a look at justice and the law, I thought I'd continue with a focus on prisons and songs that describe life in the penitentiary. Furry Lewis sang about the inevitability of ending up in the penitentiary once he ended up in the court of Judge Harsh. Furry Lewis singing about heading to prison despite never having harmed a man. His woman offers money to the judge, but its not enough to keep the penitentiary from becoming his home.

They arrest me for murder, I ain't never harmed a man
Women hollered murder and I ain't raised my hand...
Because I'm arrested baby, please don't grieve and moan
Penitentiary seems just like my home
People all hollering about what in the world they will do
Lots of people had justice and been in penitentiary too
Field recordings from Southern penitentiaries were a frequent pursuit of folklorists recording for the Library of Congress or universities. Alan Lomax recorded some remarkable songs by prisoners about their experiences including a harmonica feature from a man known only as Alex and a haunting vocal from Tangle Eye.

Prison Blues

Well now yall be standing around the courthouse babe
Lord knows when Judge Davis(?) give me my time
Lord yall be standing around the courthouse
When Judge Davis give me my time
When I begin to leave my baby crying
Lord knows Mr. Judge you give him too long
Said now that’s all right baby lord
knows I’ll make it over one old day
Said now that’s all right baby I’ll make
it over one old day
Now some of the days soon, I’ll make it back home
Now fare you well, fare you well babe
Lord knows I’m on my last go-round
Now fare you well, fare you well
Lord knows I’m on my last go-round
Well you know if I can live to be in this town
Babe I won’t be hollering
down in prison no more
Tangle Eye:

Oh Lord
Well I wonder will I ever get back home?
Oh Lord
Well it must have been the devil that pulled me here
more down and out
Oh Lord… if I ever get back home, I’ll never do wrong
If I can just make it home I won’t do wrong no more
Lord I won’t do wrong no more
Lord I left mae will and the baby in the courthouse crying daddy please don’t go

Lord I’ll be back home
Well, Lord I’ll be home one day before long
Away from here
Lord I been here rolling but it stays so long
Lord I’m down and out... must be
Come and see what’s done happened to me
Lord If I’d listened to what my dear old mother said
But she’s dead and gone, Lord she’s dead and gone
But I’m gonna do now

Many commercial blues singers also concerned themselves with the prison experience including Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Prison Cell Blues" from 1928.

Got a red eyed captain : and a squabbling boss
Got a mad dog sergeant
honey and he won't knock off
I asked the government to knock some days off my time
Well the way I'm treated, I'm about to lose my mind
I wrote to the governor, please turn me a loose
Since I didn't get no answer I know it ain't no use
I hate to turn over and find my rider gone
Aside from his loneliness, Jefferson sang about the difficulties with his captain, boss, and sergeant. These were common complaints for the prisoner. Jefferson also refers to writing to the governor. That was common for many prisoners, usually to no avail. However, letters to the governor or a judge accompanied by the support of a local white man, who might need the black prisoner, for his own labor, at times were enough to allow the release of a convict in the Deep South (this includes John and Alan Lomax influencing Governor Oscar K. Allen of Louisiana to grant Leadbelly his second pardon).

Peg Leg Howell recorded several songs about crimes and prison. In "Ball and Chain Blues" recorded in Atlanta in 1929, he sings a song about the hard labor that comes with a sentence. Labor was a constant in Southern prisons and it took various forms. Howell discusses being part of a chain gang working in a mine.

I asked the judge what might be my fine
Get a pick and shovel, dig down in the mine
I told the judge, I ain't been here before
If you give me light sentence, I won't come here no more

Mr judge Mr judge, please don't break so hard
I always been a poor boy, never hurt no John
So the next day they carried the poor boy away
Said the next day I had a ball and chain
Take the stripes off my back, chains from around my legs
This ball and chain about to kill me dead
Howell served time in Georgia prison camps for bootlegging offenses. He knew
what it was like to endure physical labor for the state as a prisoner. Chain
gang work had a reputation for harshness, but equally harsh systems in states
like Mississippi with Parchman Farm and Louisiana with Angola penitentiary had
their prisoners work the fields of a prison plantation. Nearly all observers
remarked on the similarities between these prisons and the systems of plantation
slavery that had ended decades earlier in those same states. Bukka White
recorded two songs about prison including "Parchman Farm Blues," recounting his
experience there.
Judge give me life this morning down on Parchman Farm
I wouldn't hate it so bad but I left my wife and my home
Oh goodbye wife all you have done gone
But I hope some day you will hear my lonesome song

Oh listen men I don't mean no harm
If you want to do good you better stay off of Parchman Farm
We goes to work in the morning just the dawn of day
Just at the setting of the sun, that's when the work is done

I'm down on old Parchman Farm, I sure want to go back home
But I hope some day I will overcome

Parchman Farm's crops created a huge amount of revenue for the state of Mississippi creating an incentive to imprison laborers for the fields. The prison's brutality was the stuff of legend. One of the few ways to be released early, was for one prisoner to kill another that was thought to be trying to escape. The state farms and the chain gangs held many in an era when hard labor was the punishment for those who ended up in prisons, some guilty of violent crimes, others lesser offenses that still violated the Jim Crow system. This include countless blues musicians who recorded dozens of songs that create a fascinating document of prisons in the 20s and 30s.

Further reading: Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David M. Oshinksy, Blues Fell this Morning: Meaning in the Blues (Goin' to take a rap chapter) by Paul Oliver.

Judge Harsh Blues - Furry Lewis
Prison Blues - Alex
Tangle Eye Blues - Tangle Eye
Prison Cell Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Prison Wall Blues - Gus Cannon
Ball and Chain Blues - Peg Leg Howell
Parchman Farm Blues - Bukka White

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